East Phillips activists say City’s plan threatens their health
The City of Minneapolis is close to demolishing an abandoned warehouse at the southern end of the East Phillips neighborhood to expand and consolidate the existing water and sewer maintenance facilities. The plan faces opposition from neighbors and environmental justice advocates who want to use the warehouse for an urban farm and cooperatively owned business incubator.
On January 26, the Minneapolis City Council approved the demolition, awarding a contract worth an estimated $1.6 million to Rachel Contracting of St. Michael. Expansion of the public works facility would include building parking for an additional 360 vehicles with space split between City-owned vehicles and worker-owned vehicles.
The plan to demolish the abandoned Roof Depot warehouse on E. 28th Street, where it intersects with the Midtown Greenway, has been in the works since the early 1990s, after a report recommended the City consolidate its water operations. In 2015, the City bought the warehouse site, which sits on land occupied by a former pesticide manufacturer and was declared a superfund site in 2007.
Located southeast of downtown Minneapolis, East Phillips is already one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the city. The 2022 Minnesota Department of Health’s Life and Breath report found 102.6 per 100,000 people in the zip code encompassing the Roof Depot site died from particulate matter pollution, the city’s third-highest zip code area after Kingfield and the University of Minnesota.
“I’m tired of us being overlooked because we’re poor, because we’re Native, because we don’t have the same resources that a lot of the rich White people do,” said Vinny Dion at a February 6 protest at the Hennepin County Government Center organized by the East Phillips Neighborhood Initiative (EPNI). “So [rich people] look down upon us [saying,] ‘Yeah, let’s throw that toxic s*** in that area.’”
Area residents are 77 percent Black, Indigenous, or people of color, and 27 percent were born outside of the United States, according to census data. They are worried about increased pollution, asthma, related illness and death because of particulates released during the warehouse demolition and the expansion of water and sewer maintenance facilities.
Complicating the expansion is that the warehouse, which remains a superfund site, was once used to manufacture pesticides with arsenic. Although the arsenic was remediated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in the mid-2000s, arsenic remains buried below the surface of the building, and the City does not appear to have a plan to control it during the building’s demolition.
After community lobbying in 2021, the City opted to complete an environmental review of the project, even though Minnesota rules did not require them to do so. The report found that they did not need to complete an environmental impact statement.
As a result, East Phillips Neighborhood Initiative and Little Earth resident Cassie Holmes sued, alleging conflicts of interest because the City conducted its own environmental worksheet, and alleged bias as well because the Environmental Assessment Worksheet was incomplete and the City needed to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.
They lost the case in district court and in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, with the appeals court opinion stating there was no conflict of interest because a different department conducted the worksheet. The court found the City had engaged in robust discussion and entertained different perspectives on the project, and that the City did their due diligence in evaluating cumulative impacts. The group plans to appeal that decision.
After the city council voted to approve the demolition of the Roof Depot, the East Phillips Neighborhood Initiative also sued to prevent demolition. The outcome of that case is still pending.
The City tried to work with EPNI and most recently offered to reduce and mitigate pollution from the site, as well as offering them 24 months of exclusive development rights for three acres through a memorandum of understanding, so long as they waive their right to sue. Although the city council approved the deal, activists rejected it as it didn’t appear to be enforceable and lacked details such as protecting residents from pollution.
“It’s really a slap in the face, because they’re saying we’ll give you three acres, but you guys have to accept the pollution and everything that comes with it,” said Holmes at the Feb. 6 rally.
As the City prepares for demolition, organizers are asking the public to “show up in numbers,” thank their city council members for their role in addressing the Roof Depot site, donate, participate in their meetings, and follow them on social media to stay up-to-date on their efforts.
“How many more children do we have to lose? How many more community members do we have to lose for them to open their eyes? For them not to see us here begging for our lives,” said Nicole Perez at the rally. “No demolition. We do not want your diesel vehicles in our community.”
Organizers from the East Phillips Neighborhood Initiative are planning a rally next Sunday, Feb. 26, at 2 pm near the entrance to the yard site at 27th and Longfellow.
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